I’ll never know what made me wake up that night, but I remember looking over at my wife and watching her sleep. Her hair was spread out across the pillow. She looked peaceful and beautiful.
Wendy and I met in high school. Somehow we made it through college, one of those rare long-distance relationships that work out. She loved me wholly, selflessly, despite the pain I caused her at times. I nearly destroyed my life with alcohol and drugs during those years, but she was still there beside me through it all. She taught me what unconditional love really was.
Then, when I was 22, everything changed. God got my attention in a way I never saw coming. Wendy had always been the one with faith, gently trying to push me towards Him. But now I had given my life to Him, and Wendy couldn’t believe it when I told her. Two weeks later I asked her to be my wife, and we married the next year.
Our relationship was strong, we had built something beautiful together.
Now here we were, 13 years later. Our lives were good, comfortable. Our marriage wasn’t perfect – there’s no such thing. But our relationship was strong, we had built something beautiful together. We had worked hard to come this far. We’d been blessed with four amazing sons and had just moved to a new house. It felt like a new chapter in our lives was beginning.
As I lay there in bed, I had no idea that our chapter together was about to close. I heard Wendy take a breath – or rather a gasp. Whatever it was, it didn’t sound right so I tried to wake her. I nudged her gently and whispered her name. When there was no response I started to shake her, screaming at her to wake up.
They managed to restart her heart, but she never regained consciousness.
I called 911. Wendy had no pulse. She’d stopped breathing. How could this be happening? My wife was a healthy, vibrant 36-year-old. This was impossible. I gave her CPR until help arrived. There was suddenly a whole group of strangers in our bedroom, trying to save her. I could see by the looks on their faces that hope was fading fast.
They managed to restart her heart at the hospital, but she never regained consciousness. On March 17, 2017, her heart stopped for the last time. Wendy was gone.
My dad drove me home from the hospital. It was a grey morning, cold and sleeting. My phone buzzed with a text from my 11-year-old son: “Is Mom okay?” I broke, then. I was about to shatter their hearts, all four of my sons, tear their lives apart. Their world would never be the same again.
Amid all the condolences and messages of support, one name stood out. Someone I’d never even met.
My memories of the days and weeks that followed are a haze of sleepless nights and waking nightmares. We were overwhelmed with love and support from friends, family and the community. This outpouring meant so much to us, but none of it could soften the pain. Death was a cold, unshakeable reality. Wendy was never coming back. We had to learn to live without her.
Amid all the condolences and messages of support, one name stood out. Someone I’d never even met. Erin Stoffel. A name everyone in the area knew, thanks to a horrific sequence of events.
Erin had met her husband, Jon, in high school. As with Wendy and I, they’d survived being apart while Jon went off to bible college in California. Erin, a year younger, followed him there after she graduated. They married when she was 19.
Thirteen years later, they were a close-knit family of five. Their faith coloured every aspect of their lives. Jon, now 33, provided for his family through hard, honest work as a carpenter. Kind, goofy, outgoing, sincere – Jon was someone you wouldn’t forget if you met him.
The man suddenly pulled out a 9mm pistol and shot John point-blank in the chest.
One beautiful spring day In May 2015, the family enjoyed a walk along the newly-built Trestle Trail Bridge in Menasha, Wisconsin. As they approached the red pavilion midway across the 1600-foot bridge, they saw a man slumped on a bench. Another man stood next to him.
Jon approached, trying to see what was wrong, no doubt wanting to help. The standing man suddenly pulled out a 9mm pistol and shot John point-blank in the chest. Next, he turned the gun on Erin and 11-year-old Olivia, shooting each of them once. Five-year-old Selah stood next to them, frozen with fear.
Erin, shot through the leg, managed to get to her feet and grab Selah. Her seven-year-old son, Ezra, was further ahead on the bridge. The gunman shot Erin through the abdomen and her left hand as she ran, but she managed to get herself and her two youngest children off the bridge. She collapsed in pain, her mind struggling to comprehend what had just transpired. Their world was plunged into chaos.
Jon, Olivia and the innocent man on the bench all died that day. The shooting was completely random – the gunman didn’t know any of his victims. It seemed he simply intended to take innocent lives on that fateful day.
Erin underwent multiple surgical procedures in the hospital. Even though a breathing tube prevented her from speaking, she was determined to tell people of her husband’s last words as he faced his killer: “May God forgive you.”
I remember praying for Erin and her two remaining children. And now here she was, reaching out to me.
Those words touched so many people. The story hit the national headlines – it was surreal to hear my hometown, Menasha, being connected to something so terrible.
I remember at the time praying for Erin and her two remaining children. And now here she was, reaching out to me – a stranger – with sympathy and encouragement.
The feeling of hope as I read her text was immediate and real. I knew what she’d been through. I knew we both followed Jesus. If He had given her the strength to survive such horror, to make her strong enough to help others, I was sure I could get through this.
Because of what we had both been through, there was a natural connection.
Erin became a light in a very dark place, a lifeline I could cling to. She would send me encouraging texts, songs, bible verses. Suddenly, I wasn’t alone. I could ask her anything, no matter how deep or raw. Because of what we had both been through, there was a natural connection.
We met in person for the first time around a month later at Lifest, a Christian music festival in Wisconsin. We talked for hours. Despite the tragedy Erin had faced, there was an underlying joy to her. A tangible spark. Yes, grief had changed her – but it hadn’t permeated her life with sadness.
Although it was grief that brought us together, it soon became clear that God was using us to help heal each other. But this was about more than just two people. We were both worried about our kids, growing up without one parent. None of their friends had experienced anything similar – they couldn’t understand. How would they cope with the loss and grief through their formative years? Experiencing pain through your kids is one of the worst feelings you can have.
But suddenly, they weren’t alone. They were connecting too. They laughed together, spoke about their grief, related to each other’s experiences. It was clear that they too were finding healing through each other.
My relationship with Erin progressed beyond friendship. I saw her beautiful heart, scarred by loss but still so full of joy and love. The path forward for us was clear.
Grief will always be a part of our story. But it doesn’t define who or what we are.
We were married on June 28, 2018. A year after she first reached out to me with one simple, encouraging text. Now, every day, we embrace our lives as a blended family of eight and all the chaos and joy that brings.
Grief will always be a part of our story, of course it will. But it doesn’t define who or what we are. It would have been easy to give in to bitterness and regret. To withdraw from life and society. Instead, Erin taught me to embrace moments of happiness without guilt, and also to accept the tears when they come. Joy and pain go hand in hand.
We’ve chosen to be grateful for the loved ones we lost. To be thankful for the time we had with them. There are things we will never understand in life, but Erin and I continue to trust in God no matter what. If there is no God, then all that we have endured is ultimately meaningless, just a cruel twist of fate. But if He exists, then we can understand that the pain we’ve endured has a purpose. We can experience healing and live with the hope of seeing our loved ones again.
All uncredited images appear courtesy of Steve Ullmer and Erin Stoffel Ullmer.
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